Like many of you, I’ve been watching the Olympics. It’s been a blast to watch the United States win gold medal after gold medal. We’re on fire this time around. And that got me to thinking about elite athletes, and then about the elite of the elite, like Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles. I mean, it’s gotta suck to be any of their teammates, because despite being incredible athletes in their own rights, they can’t get noticed behind the shadow of their more decorated fellows. There is no comparison. This got me to thinking about how the elite compare with the rest of us. How can we make sense of a universe where there are such disparities within one species? This led me to contemplate the Black Dagger Brotherhood—don’t you immediately contemplate vampires in the face of extraordinary human achievement? No? Well, I couldn’t help wondering if Michael and Katie and Simone might actually be vampires, or some kind of comic book superhero, different in kind and not just degree.
In the BDB world, there are different strata of society. The royal family includes the King, the Queen and their baby son, who are at the top. Below them are the Brothers, all of whom used to be genetically bred as Brothers, but whose ranks have recently been joined by civilians who have proven themselves worthy. There is even one woman, with the promise of more on the way. Next is the aristocracy, who seem to be a group with a very large stick up their collective asses. The aristocracy is a birth-based class system and is not overly permeable, similar to the English aristocracy. Lastly are the civilians, the working Joes who make the world function. There is also a class of servants about whom I’ve written before.
What does any of this have to do with our reality? Well, I’m still contemplating elites and elitism. Unlike in the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, or colonial Britain, it used to be here in the good old U.S of A, that everyone believed they could rise to the level of their betters (in a socioeconomic sense of that word, not in a white supremacist sense). That was the beauty of the great American Dream. My whole life, in fact, is the product of that dream: my father was a Russian immigrant who fled the pogroms and his father’s murder to come to this land of opportunity. My father spoke no English, and only managed to get through ninth grade before his mother died and he was left with the care of his two younger brothers. Through hard work, intelligence, perseverance and some good luck, my father lived out the American Dream, making money and moving on up to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky, just like the Jeffersons. He raised his children on Park Avenue in New York City, and sent them to elite universities. The point here is that it was possible for an orphan from Russia to make it big and join the American upper class.
And that is amazing and wonderful and inspiring. And while there was a reasonable expectation that a similar trajectory was available to any whose wits, and grit and talent make them able to climb the societal ladders to a station well above where they started, all things were possible. When that was true, the U.S. could accommodate an elite class whose ranks were sufficiently accessible so that at least the illusion of social mobility existed for all.
It seems to me that it is no longer possible to maintain that particular fiction. As in the Black Dagger Brotherhood (at least before the last couple of books where the situation appears to be evolving, albeit slowly), being part of the elite is now a matter more of birth than of talent or indefatigable determination. In our current society, the children of the elite go to the good schools and are given the choicest opportunities. And as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the availability of the American Dream for all but the most talented and the most fortunate, is decreasing. We’re getting to the point where only the Michael Phelpses and Simone Biles of this world can rise to the level of the elite (and we’re still not sure they’re actually human). Because the discrepancy between them and everyone else is getting bigger and bigger, and it’s getting harder and harder to ascend.
It seems to me that young people all over the U.S. are figuring out tragically early that the good stuff isn’t for them, that they will never reach the brass ring, and that they will never get the chance to rise to the top—unless their talent or intellect is of Phelpsian or Jobsian proportions. And most of us know by the time we’re 15 whether we have any chance of being the next Michael Phelps or Steve Jobs. Most of us have a greater chance of being struck by lightning. Twice.
So where does that leave us? Pretty much in the mess we’re in, with lots of simmering anger that flares up periodically. And what I really can’t understand is that we’ve all seen this movie before and it doesn’t end well for those elites who close their doors to ensure their exclusivity. Invasion (Rome), revolution (France) or collapsing under its own weight (the Soviet Union) is the denouement of all of these societies.
Why can’t we be more like the Black Dagger Brotherhood? If centuries-old vampires are capable of change and evolution when the writing is so clearly on the wall, why can’t we embrace populism by ensuring the potential for anyone to be elevated to the elite? And I know I am not addressing the very serious and very real issue of a level playing field for all (regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation or identity, etc.) which is a ginormous problem. But, given that (huge) caveat, our society can only work when there is a real possibility that anyone willing to work hard, be persistent and show initiative can move on up. Which is how elitism can survive. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work. Superman and Wonder Woman only exist in fantasy, not truth.